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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Song of Myself: The Paradox of the Project
My subject here is Whitman’s greatest poem, Song of Myself. For its celebratory power, originality of voice, modulation of mood, metaphoric inventiveness, and thematic resonance, it is very probably the greatest poem written by an American. What makes the poem so remarkable are the extraordinary demands it had to meet. For Song of Myself aims at four objectives, any one of which would have been sufficient to provide the motive force for a great work. First, of course, is the enunciation of an identity; that is, the simultaneous creation and expression of the poet’s self, a project of special complexity in Whitman’s case, as I shall soon explain. Second is the clarification of his relation to America, a matter of unusual importance for him. Whitman’s third motive is his desire to uncover the source of and give voice to his overwhelming love of life; and fourth, his need to respond to the deepest challenge to this love, his need to resolve his own nontheistic problem of evil. Since all these objectives bear upon the primary charge, the enunciation of an identity, the fullest treatment of this theme would require an examination of all of them. Insofar as the objectives are separable, however, I will be dwelling here on this primary motif.
I have another reason, in addition to its primacy, for dwelling on this theme. The forging of a new identity is the quintessentially American subject, the project of greatest urgency for the young New-World nation and its inhabitants, in 1855, when Whitman wrote, and now, when enterprise, pluck, entrepreneurial ambition, and boot-strapping self-invention remain deeply ingrained ingredients of the national mythos. The fact that Whitman gave this project so large, bold, and original a voice is a key source of its enduring greatness.
Song of Myself is what philosophers call a “performative” utterance (like a promise or an oath). That is, in announcing his presence in the world, Whitman is at the same time establishing that presence, articulating its nature. The announcement creates the thing announced. The poem is the record of a spiritual transformation, but it is simultaneously the accomplishment of that transformation. What made the problem of articulating an identity so difficult for Whitman?
There were three key reasons for this difficulty. What the poet is drawn to here (and elsewhere in the Leaves) is the realm of the unmastered, the dimension of reality beyond the possibility of mastery. The aspect of things of interest to Whitman is the elemental, the primitive and irreducible, what presents itself to us as ever new, ever subject to discovery. This dimension cannot be mastered because it lies beneath the realm of language; it connects us with things in their primordiality, where their profiles are inexhaustible. But personal identity is what fixes our place in the world, defines an internal and external reality in which we can move with relative ease. The project of establishing a personal identity requires a delimiting of the world, the creation of a domain of familiarity, comfort, and mastery, precisely the sort of domain Whitman’s nature resists. The very project of self-definition is therefore paradoxical for Whitman: given his way of being in the world, success in this project threatens self-alienation.
The second reason for the special difficulty derives from Whitman’s greatest gift: his gift for identification with the persons and things of the world. His capacity for inhabiting sympathetically the presence of others and of natural objects makes it highly problematic for him to mark out a sphere of separateness where he as a self can stand. But, of course, such an act of separation is the crux of making an identity. Once again, then, Whitman’s ambition to create an identity seems to be at cross purposes with his deepest nature.
Finally, his internal conflict, the “twoness” he speaks of in his journals, and of which there is ample evidence in the poem, compounds his difficulties in making a self, for an identity satisfactory to one side of his nature will not be satisfactory to the other. There is an assertive, striding, embracing Walt Whitman who leads the celebration, but there is also a passive, tender, delicate Whitman attuned to darkness and doubt. The presence of these two dramatically disparate poles gives the poem much of its tension. More than any other factor, this is what makes the poem’s unfolding a drama. But finding an identity that can embrace both these poles is a very great challenge, for they are so divergent as to seem contradictory Gestalts.
The key project is the presentation and creation of a person, the person who sings this poem. It is a project challenged at every turn by seemingly impossible demands. And yet the poem succeeds at a level attained by very few others in our language. How is its work accomplished? My program here will be to examine the poem in detail, paying special attention to its most significant and long-vexed passages. And my goal will be to discover how the paradoxical demands of this great poem are met by the identity it creates.
There is not a linear development in the Song. It is not a step-by-step unfolding of a self, ordered chronologically or thematically. To briefly illustrate the point, in the first chant, the poet is thirty-seven years old, but a description of the aeons in preparation for his birth appears very late in the poem (44). His love of his own body is introduced in the second chant and recurs throughout, appearing with no greater intensity in the first lines of chant 45 than in this first presentation. His calm acceptance of death in the last chant is a reiteration of a theme that appeared as early as chant 6. The exaltation of the commonplace that closes chant 5 appears as late as chant 47, and the mystery in a spear of grass is prominent in both the first and last chants.
Neither a chronologically nor a thematically ordered narrative, Song of Myself is rather an incantatory stream of self-presentations the first lines of which already announce the fruit of the process.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume
For whatever atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,
Whitman declaims in the famous opening lines. In doing so, he is already setting out essential features of the identity the poem will elaborate: his connection at an elemental level with every person who reads him, the bold confident good-humored presumption that this connection allows, and the importance of his physical being to his personhood.
But to deny linearity is not to deny all semblance of development in the poem. Not only is there a development in our understanding of the persona of the poem, an accretion of knowledge that enables us by the end to comprehend more deeply the meaning of the beginning; but there is also a development of the persona itself. Revelations occur, conflicts erupt, resolutions are reached in the course of this stream of self-presentations, and these take place in present time. The announcement of the formed self is interrupted at these junctures and we witness first-hand the process of its shaping. Some of the development of the self thus occurs before our eyes, and this gives us insight into how the persona of the first lines was formed and what conflicts might continue to challenge it. Further, there are throughout elements of the telling of a (linear) tale. (“I loafe and invite my soul…” (1) is an apt beginning for a soul’s journey. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,” the poet entices in the second chant. The crises he confronts in chants 28 and 38 are present-tense narratives with developments, climaxes and resolutions, critical unfoldings of events. “… [N]ow I see it is true, what I guessed at/ What I guessed when I loafed on the grass…,” the poet discovers in chant 33, announcing something he has learned in the process of self-revelation. Chants 46 and 49 through 51 show the poet’s awareness that his time with us is coming to an end: he prepares us for his departure. And in the final chant, he departs as air.
In the first chant, he declares that since his tongue is formed from the elements, it enables nature herself to speak through him “without check with original energy.” It will occur to the reader that his or her own tongue is made of these same elements, and Whitman encourages the inference that the reader, too, can speak for nature when he draws the direct connection: “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Still, it is not as though we readers are in a position to do this now, without an apprenticeship. (In chant 47, we are reminded that he must act as our tongue.) Dangers are hinted at, and our self-confidence is gently mocked.
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems? (2)
But if we stop this day and night with the poet, we “shall possess the origin of all poems” and “the good of the earth and sun,” and we will learn what it is to take things at first hand, to encounter reality with original eyes, without the mediation imposed by the teachings of others. Thus do we learn at the outset that the song of himself is to be an entry to our selves also, that a key aspect of his identity is the role of a teacher whose self-defining will be inseparable from ours.
Also at the outset we are introduced to the terms of our apprenticeship. It is no body of doctrines that Whitman has to offer, no philosophical propositions, no catechism for memorization, no shuttered rooms to enclose us. What he offers instead is a manner of being.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine.
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart,
the passing of blood and air through my lungs. . . (2)
He shall teach us by his example to love the very rudiments of our living.
What the poet has to teach does not lend itself to a logical order of presentation. (“I do not talk of the beginning or the end.” (3) ) His vision is unitary; his subject, eternal. At their center is “the procreant urge of the world,” and no elaboration can dispel its mystery. At the center of the self is this mystery, which the poet identifies with his soul. Though the presence of his soul is “clear and sweet” to him (3), its nature is not clear.
The poet invites his soul in the fourth line, and the soul will respond later to the invitation. But what seem conditions of the response are the “acceptation and realization” of chant 3 and the identification in chant 4 of the “Me myself” who stands “apart from the pulling and hauling” of the world, the ‘me myself’ who can receive the soul’s gift.
What is it that he accepts and realizes in chant 3? Perhaps it is his own loving nature, his divided and vexed sexuality, perhaps the passivity expressed in the longing gaze that follows the departing “hugging and loving bed-fellow.” The charm and promise in the image of the gift-baskets swelling with bread contrasts sharply with the image of a condemning self, calculating its best advantage. We are thus invited to endorse his acceptation. But the anguished self to which we are introduced here, a self that could be in danger of screaming at its eyes, is poles apart from the powerful assertive male “sure as the most certain sure” thus far presenting himself to us.
Chant 4 gives us more insight into this diffident dimension of himself. For here Whitman introduces us with startling directness, as though taking us to the secret sources of the persona conducting the celebration, to the passive self who stands apart from the agitation, witnesses and waits. It is this self which is capable of inviting the soul, this self for whom the soul will “loose the stop from [its] throat.”
This is not to say that the striding male is a mere mask, which would reduce Song of Myself to fakery or pathology. We are not naively taking Whitman at his word when we are impressed by his ebullient good health. That health is one of the authentic achievements of this masterful work. Our presentations of self in the social world have necessarily the character of a performance, distinct as these must be from the solitary communion of the interior self. We need not go so far as Jean-Paul Sartre did in identifying the person with his or her public acts to recognize nonetheless that much of what we genuinely are is discovered and made in these performances, these interactions with others.
The magnificent fifth chant is one of the three nodal points of the poem (the others being 28 and 38). Here Whitman sings to us in his softest, most reverential voice. For he is leading us into the sanctum of his creative power. He presents the union of his soul and the ‘me myself’ as a reminiscence.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, How
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.
The soul is Whitman’s connection to nature, to the mystery of the procreant urge. Spiritual and sexual simultaneously (like Plato’s Eros), it is the source of his poetic inspiration. The ‘me myself’, the passive, receptive dimension of Whitman’s nature, opens itself to the soul, awaits its gift, and the merger between soul’s tongue and self’s heart results in the fusion of word and feeling, perception and imagination, that produces Whitman’s vision. The description taken literally is both erotic and surreal (i.e., beyond the real), depicting no possible physical act. In this way it evokes the interiority and inassimilable mystery of sexuality, and the vulnerability of the self on the verge of its creation. The surreality of the description puts us necessarily in the mind of the poet, since the event is not one we can literally observe, and we experience with him the moment when the physical transcends itself toward the symbolic.
Though presented as the remembrance of a singular occasion, chant 5 teaches us what it means for the poet to invite his soul and what it means for his soul to respond to the invitation. The suggestion is that subsequent encounters between soul and self recall this pivotal act when the poet was born. And so chant 5 is the soul’s response to the invitation offered in the fourth line of chant 1. The self invites the soul by recalling this day. The soul responds by vivifying that initial scene in the self’s memory, providing the libidinal surge of that reminiscence. And the process is consummated when the vision is produced again with its original power. This is why the poet in relating the revelation of this event must shift to the present tense.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the
argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers,
and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff and drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein
The telling of the critical event has reproduced the vision. The divinity of his own person and of every person ever born, love as the keel of the whole share paramount place with the beauty of mullein and poke-weed. And the full bouquet of metaphors offered in chant 6 in answer to the child’s ‘What is the grass?’ is presented as an illustration: This is what happens when soul and self unite and perception fuses with imagination. In the humblest of things will be seen the visage of all it relates to.
The poet has considerably advanced the project of his self-identification. There is the persona out in the world, held up for our and the poet’s own delighted admiration.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
A voice corresponds to this persona, the large, confident voice we hear in the first lines and in most of what we have read thus far. But there is also the self who conceives this superb specimen of manhood and creates its voice, and this self is the union of two further dimensions of the poet’s identity: the passive, witnessing and waiting self and the soul, the presence in the poet of wild nature.
In chants 7 through 19, in many series of vignettes, he shows himself as the “caresser of life wherever moving” (13), extending his sympathetic embrace to the humblest animals, in whom he sees the workings of “the same old law” (the procreant urge) that operates in him. (17) He is the companion of all, (7) wholly accepting, and “around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away.” (7) At the end of the especially long list of single-line descriptions in chant 15 of people pursuing their work, all presented in egalitarian succession, president juxtaposed to prostitute, bride to opium-eater, with no intrusion of the poet’s presence, we are reminded at last of the relation of all these to his enunciation of himself:
And these tend inward to me and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave this song of myself.
No scene is too humble for his notice and no scene so dark as to undermine his celebrative spirit. The specter of self-condemnation, the appearance of beggars, unrequited love, fratricidal war, the corpse of a suicide, adulterous offers, lonely repression, hopeless lunacy, brutal amputation, the selling of slaves, derision of a prostitute, defeat in battle–none escape the poet’s often keen and nuanced observation, none sacrificed or put by. Least of all is death ignored. Rather is it introduced very early as an integral part of this celebration of life, when the grass is seen as “the beautiful uncut hair of graves,” (6) growing from the breasts of young men, or from infants taken from their mothers’ laps, or from the laps themselves.
Nor does the poet (always) submerge the brunt of the tragic in heroic generalization, as he does in his express chant for the defeated (18). In the early portion of Song of Myself that we have been considering he could hardly have improved upon the particularity of these descriptions:
The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom,
I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair, I note where the pistol has fallen. (8)
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm’d case,
(He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s
The malform’d limbs are tied to the surgeon’s table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail; (15)
And his participation in the vivid sexual fantasy of the high-born woman of chant 11, the woman who joins in her imagination the twenty-eight nude bathers, acquaints us fully with her loneliness. Noble and humble, victor and sufferer, his identity is composed of all, living and dead.
But it is altogether too easy to exaggerate the scope of what he accepts. It is not the case that the poet excludes no one from his embrace. In these early lists, he makes a point of separating himself from the men who jeer at the prostitute. (15) Much later in the poem, when his identification with the suffering of the world is building to a crisis, exclusions are made by indirection. The poet is with the woman “burnt with dry wood, her children gazing on.” He is the hounded slave. (33) He is with the 412 massacred at Goliad, though he lays out the facts with stoical coldness. (34) He is not with those who condemn and set flames to the woman. He is not with the marksmen who force the slave to clutch the rails of the fence, nor with the riders on reluctant horses who beat him with whip-stocks. He is not among those who fire for three hours upon the defenseless prisoners, “the glory of the race of rangers.”
None obey’d the command to kneel.
Some made a mad and helpless rush, some stood stark and straight,
A few fell at once, shot in the temple or heart, the living and dead lay
The maim’d and mangled dug in the dirt, the new-corners saw them
Some half-kill’d attempted to crawl away,
These were despatch’d with bayonets or batter’d with the blunts of
A youth not seventeen years old seiz’d his assassin till two more came
to release him,
The three were all torn and cover’d with the boy’s blood.
At eleven o’clock began the burning of the bodies;
That is the tale of the murder of the four hundred and twelve young
Only once in these lines does the poet avert his focus from the martyrs. They are afflicted with savagery, the source of which is unnamed. That the perpetrators remain faceless, without description is important. The anonymity of their evil magnifies the poet’s contempt.
In the whole of the poem, only one group of persons is the target of the poet’s overt scorn. He prepares us long in advance for this single direct condemnation. In chant 19, he introduces the image of the “meal equally set,” the feast to which all are invited, “the wicked just the same as the righteous,” though the examples of wickedness are confined to the kept woman, sponger, thief, and venerealee, persons we can easily imagine as much sinned against as sinning. In chant 42, the feast recurs, but now in an entirely different setting.
Here and there with dimes on the eyes walking,
To feed the greed of the belly the brains liberally spooning,
Tickets buying, taking, selling, but in to the feast never once going,
Many sweating, ploughing, thrashing, and then the chaff
for payment receiving,
A few idly owning, and they the wheat continually claiming.
Those who profit from the labors of the workmen he celebrates, those who exploit the glories of the feast, but remain resolutely blind to them, those whose vision is blunted by greed and whose brains are bent to its service–these the poet outright condemns.
Is it possible to reconcile these implicit and explicit judgments with his claims to incorporate whatever exists, beyond all discriminations of virtue and vice? (22) Have we here one of the contradictions he dismisses with his famous grandiloquent sweep?
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (51)
But there is no contradiction here. His identity is composed of all he sees and experiences, and this includes the evils he witnesses and suffers. He is these things because he has interiorized these events, felt them and responded. They have become part of the fabric of his life. But incorporating in this way is not the same as accepting and participating sympathetically in the perpetrationof evil. Whitman may understand first-hand the quick fury that drives a man to readiness to knife one he hates, (33) but on no other occasion does he extend his empathic identification to the perpetrator of an actual or imagined evil. His acquaintance with evil is otherwise always in the sufferer. For this generous and nurturing heart, “the wonder is always and always how there can be a mean man and an infidel.” (22)
The poet’s love of his own physical being and the importance of his body to his identity are introduced in the third line (“every atom belonging to me. . .”) and are very soon elaborated with startling candor. (“The smoke of my own breath” ff (2) ) We are conducted on this extraordinary journey by a big man in the prime of health, whose very footfall “to the earth springs forth a hundred affections,” (14) a man so wholly comfortable in the spread of his own body and so wholly at home among the elements as to make his body seem a permeable membrane (“translucent mould of me” (24)) eagerly absorbing the elements and all that presents itself to him, filtering them, then eagerly responding, sending sunrise out of himself (25) in the form of his health and this song. The movement is a perpetual taking in and giving out, influx and efflux, this rhythm of life providing his primary point of identification with the sea. (22)
And this association will be especially instructive. For what we come to see is that his identification with the natural things and persons of this earth is largely accomplished through his body. (“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”) He feels the presence of the spear of grass in his buoyant good health, his “disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.” (6) The circling of the wood-drake and wood-duck are experienced directly by him in the red, yellow, and white playing within himself. (13) His most exuberant celebration of his body occurs in chant 24, where the bodily presence of poet and nature are completely interfused. In a single flowing stream, metaphors linking his body to natural objects are succeeded without pause by descriptions of natural objects in human terms, the series of exclamations closing quietly with the remembrance of human touch.
If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my
body or any part of it,
Translucent mould of me it shall be you!
Shaded ledges and rests it shall be you!
Firm masculine colter it shall be you!
Whatever goes to the tilth of me it shall be you!
You my rich blood! your milky stream pale strippings of my life!
Breast that presses against other breasts it shall be you!
My brain it shall be your occult convolutions!
Root of wash’d sweet-flag! timorous pond-snipe! nest of guarded duplicate eggs!
it shall be you!
Mix’d tussled hay of head, beard, brawn, it shall be you!
Trickling sap of maple, fibre of manly wheat, it shall be you!
Sun so generous it shall be you!
Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you!
You sweaty brooks and dews it shall be you!
Wind whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you!
Broad muscular fields, branches of live-oak, loving lounger in my winding
paths, it shall be you!
Hands I have taken, face I have kiss’d, mortal I have ever touch’d, it shall be
The poet is connected to the persons and things of the earth through sympathetic resonances within his own body. This is the key to his omnific sexuality, why his erotic descriptions of the night, his coupling with voluptuous earth and cushioning sea (21), his sensual interaction with a stallion, (32) his keen alertness to the sexuality of people, regardless of gender, even his pining for the great Camerado (the Lord), the lover true, (45) all strike us as so natural, why his frequent celebrations of male sexuality, whether in glimpses as subtle as “the lithe sheer of their waists” (12) or as overt as the picturesque giant in chant 13, why his declaration that he is “the poet of the woman the same as the man” (21) and his entering into female sexual consciousness in chant 11, never challenge our sense of him as paradigmatically male: the hankering, gross, mystical, nude pinnacle of malehood. It is not simply because he tells us that he is a kosmos, turbulent, fleshy, sensual (24) that we are willing to embrace his omnifarious sexuality. It is rather because he demonstrates again and again his direct participation in the manifold expressions of the procreant urge that we are forced to expand our conception of the seminal. The poet who experiences in his own body the primeval energies of the world cannot be contained by gender. He is indeed the voice of sexes and lusts, clarified and transfigured. (24)
But his masculinity is not always gloriously suffusing heaven with seas of bright juice. (24) There is another, much darker side to his relationship to his own sexuality, and this is what he confronts in the first crisis of the poem.
The apogee of his celebration of his body in chant 24 is followed by praise for the power of his words, which enables his soul and himself to “ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun.” (25) He then turns to his aural sense, and the sound of the orchestra so overwhelms him as to throttle his windpipe “in fakes of death.” (26) Finally he turns to the sense of touch, the most powerful and threatening of his senses, and this brings on the crisis of chant 28.
What is described is the rape of the self, helpless, deprived of all protection, ultimately complicit in the act, all his other senses assisting against him. The scene depicts the deep threat posed by his love for his own sexuality: radical isolation. It is when he experiences his sexuality as his vital link to the world that he loves himself. But when this very self-love threatens to cut him off from the world by enclosing and crippling him in his own embrace, sexuality is experienced as an invasive irrepressible force that is wholly alienating. The fusion of the soul with the ‘me, myself’ produces Walt Whitman, a kosmos, the striding and ebullient Walt loved by the ‘me, myself’. In chant 28 he depicts his anguish over alienation from the procreant world in the form of a rape by wild nature, invasion of the ‘me, myself’ by the demonized soul. Mutiny by the soul leaves only the me, myself, bereft of poetic power (“my breath is tight in its throat”), deprived of the Walt it loves (“deprived of my best”): Isolated on a dangerous promontory, he is abandoned to his alienated sexuality, the phallic “red marauder” to which he is helplessly abased. But “I and nobody else am the greatest traitor,” because this fury is unleashed by himself: excessive and insular self-love.
The crisis is resolved by the rediscovery of his sexual connectedness in orgasm. The demonized soul threatens chaos, dissolution of the self—but only so long as its overwhelming power is resisted. Wild nature, however destructive of the bounds of the self, must be allowed free reign. The ‘me, myself’ yields to the alien soul, gives itself helplessly to wild nature, and in yielding, rather than being destroyed, is reunited with it. By delivering us with such immediacy to our rootedness in the procreant urge, orgasm breaks the bounds of the self-enclosed, self-infatuated ‘me, myself,’ thrusts it out of itself and back into the world. Rebellious abandonment by the soul is temporary; it cannot go long without him (“Did it make you ache so, leaving me?” 29), for the soul’s blind protean surging requires the self’s art to flourish in producing Walt, the kosmos, and his life-giving song.
The orgasm jolts him into realization of the mutual dependence of soul and self, the necessity for “perpetual payment of perpetual loan,” the reward in creative expression for the soul’s continual gift of sexual energy. Even as he confronts the danger in the soul’s anarchic power, even as he experiences the abasement he always fears, he is reminded of the necessity to his health for faith in wild nature, the imperative he understood as early as chant 5, when he said,
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Now “[p]arting [is] track’d by arriving,” (29) and the result of the reunion of soul and self is that Walt the kosmos is resurrected.
Sprouts take and accumulate, stand by the curb prolific and vital,
Landscapes projected masculine, full-sized and golden. (29)
As though they are the product of his fructifying seed, he experiences in his own sexuality the vitality of the landscapes of the world.
Here I may be accused of a coyness that has the effect of blocking me from a true understanding of the purport of these critical passages. Is it not obvious that the rape described in 28 is a transparent allusion to a violent homosexual act? And is it not equally clear that the chant to which it stands in striking contrast (chant 5) is a barely disguised reference to an act of homosexual love? Does not the resolution in 29 become much clearer if we understand it to be the consummation of the “acceptation” presaged in chant 3; i.e., the ultimate visceral acceptance of his homosexuality? What purpose can be served by suppressing this fundamental and central theme? Had people struggled so hard in the second half of the twentieth century for candor in these matters only to have writers like me retreat to a false politeness in the twenty-first?
The first point I want to make in reply to this criticism and alternative reading of the passages in question is that it confuses the persona of the poem with the man, Walt Whitman. Whatever we know or think we know about the sexual proclivity and practice of Walt Whitman, the persona presenting itself to us in Song of Myself is emphatically not exclusively homosexual. There is, on the contrary, no limit to his appreciation of the sexual splendor of living things. The password primeval surpasses our rigid contemporary categories of sexual identification. Walt the kosmos is alive to all the sexual resonances of the world and demonstrates this acute sensitivity throughout the poem. There is no greater warrant for calling him homosexual than there is for calling him hermaphroditic or pathologically obsessed with sex. The alternative interpretation offered by my critic reduces the liberated spirit of the poem to a pretense and its pansexualism to a calculated evasion. It refuses the singer of this song the prerogative he insists upon: to jettison all our familiar categories and name the world anew.
But, my critic is sure to reply, the poet himself recognized no separation between the persona and the man. Did he not take the identity between the two to be one of the proud distinguishing marks of his work? [“Who holds this book...”] This is, of course, true. But this fact ought to make us especially wary of accusing the poet of fraudulence, an accusation that becomes inescapable on the proposed alternative reading. If we are interested in Whitman’s biography, we ought to plunder the poetry for insight into the particular nature of his sexuality, rather than taking our speculation about his sexual practice as revelatory of the deepest meanings of his poems. The fact, for example, that the vital center of his creativity is conceived by him as an intercourse between two sexualized dimensions of himself should be taken as a clue to what he sought in his sexual practice (if indeed there was one). But merely to hunt down the homoerotic allusions in his poems does very little to reveal his meanings or indeed the particular nature of his sexuality.
Reunion of soul with self in 29 takes him as in chant 5 to the center of his vision. Reflecting on the destiny of his newly spilt sperm, he presents in chants 30 and 31 new expressions of his credo.
A minute and a drop of me settle my brain,
I believe the soggy clods shall become lovers and lamps,
And a compend of compends is the meat of a man or a woman. . . (30)
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars, And
the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’ouevre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven (31)
In the further aftermath of the crisis, he sees “it is true, what I guessed at, / What I guessed at when I loafed in the grass” (33) in chants 1 and 5: his access through his soul to the vibrant energies of the world. He sees that neither time nor space can limit his identifications, then demonstrates his omnipresence with the longest list of brief descriptions in the poem. (33) He travels earth and sea, city and country, even “speeding through heaven and the stars” and “speeding with tail’d meteors, throwing fireballs like the rest,” descending to observe animals and to participate in human scenes in dizzying helter-skelter profusion.
Past midway in this far-flung journey of chant 33, darker aspects of human experience begin to appear: a feverish patient, violent hatred, and with his approach toward “some great battlefield in which we are soon to be engaged,” a decided turn toward the tragic. We witness the wife shocked by the dredged corpse of her husband, the shipwrecked in rescue, the mother burned as a witch, the hounded slave, the fireman crushed by debris, human parts shot into the air by falling grenades, scenes of heroism and anguish from which the poet cannot separate himself:
I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there. (33)
Chants 34, 35, and 36 tell in detail first the story of Goliad then of John Paul Jones’ defeat of the British at sea. Neither is placed historically; there are no names; the stories are presented as timeless elaborations of the tragic. The heroism of the serene little captain, whose “eyes give more light to us than our battle-lanterns,” (35) is followed by a description of the battle’s horrible aftermath, ending with the poet’s spare judgment, “These so, these irretrievable.” (36) We are here very far from the poet who moistens the roots of all that has grown. (22)
In 37, a second crisis threatens, the seeds of which were contained in the third line of the poem (“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”) and have been germinating throughout, especially since chant 33. The source of the crisis is the power of his identifications. His empathy for the suffering and the dispossessed has wholly absorbed him. Once more he is in danger of losing himself.
The crisis is fully upon him in chant 38.
Enough! enough! enough!
Somehow I have been stunn’d. Stand back!
Give me a little time beyond my cuff ‘d head, slumbers, dreams, gaping,
I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake.
The mistake is revealed in the next lines:
That I could forget the mockers and insults!
That I could forget the trickling tears and the blows of the
bludgeons and hammers!
That I could look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and
His mistake was to have forgotten the beautiful gentle God who walked with him the old hills of Judaea. (33) He has forgotten this saving identification. To rectify the mistake, he must absorb again Jesus’ power to take upon himself the agonies of the earth without being destroyed by them, for it is precisely in sharing these agonies that a transcendent God can be with the denizens of his creation in their most private crucible. The deepest union of the earth is forged by our suffering. In remembering his identification with Christ, he “resume[s] the overstaid fraction,” the portion of his identity composed of his standing with the suffering, the portion he had “overstaid,”—that is, allowed to overtake and eclipse his overarching vision.
His recovery comes in the form of a general and personal resurrection:
The grave of rock multiplies what has been confided to it, or to any graves,
Corpses rise, gashes heal, fastenings roll from me.
I troop forth replenish’d with supreme power, one of an average unending
Only by envisioning the salvation of all who suffer, the unending procession, can he himself be saved.
The extraordinary final quarter of the poem (chants 39 through 52) is driven by two projects: Whitman clarifies the identity of this new Jesus and the nature of the religion he is to found, and he prepares us for his leave-taking, “like a man leaving charges before a journey.” (43)
The compassion that had threatened to overwhelm him is once again fully absorbed within his identity.
To any one dying, thither I speed and twist the knob of the door,
Turn the bed-clothes toward the foot of the bed,
Let the physician and the priest go home.
I seize the descending man and raise him with resistless will,
0 despairer, here is my neck,
By God, you shall not go down! hang your whole weight upon me.
I dilate you with tremendous breath, I buoy you up,
Every room of the house do I fill with an arm’d force,
Lovers of me, bafflers of graves.
He ministers to obvious and to silent needs.
I am he bringing help for the sick as they lie on their backs,
And for strong upright men I bring yet more needed help. (41)
But this divine compassionate creature is through and through a man, “the friendly and flowing savage,” whom everyone desires, who in radical contrast to the self anguished by his touch in chant 28 transforms the commonplace with the tips of his fingers. (39) The divinity of his touch (in chant 24) is fully restored. He is above all a sexual divine, potent and prolific, this day “jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics.” (40)
The religions of the world “did the work of their days,” but now it is time for a new religion, the one he will create, in which the “rough deific sketches” (41) of past divinities will be filled out better by every man and woman he sees. Learning to see for ourselves, with a vision as alert to the particular as his, we will come to appreciate the divinity in ourselves. And again he illustrates.
Lads ahold of fire-engines and hook-and-ladder ropes no less to me
than the gods of the antique wars,
Minding their voices peal through the crash of destruction,
Their brawny limbs passing safe over charr’d laths, their white
foreheads whole and unhurt out of the flames…
Three scythes at harvest whizzing in a row from three lusty angels with
shirts bagg’d out at their waists (41)
Chant 42 interrupts the poet’s express reflections on religion in 41 and 43, assuring the spontaneous movement of the poem, but the final stanza is another attempt to clarify the new faith.
Not words of routine this song of mine,
But abruptly to question, to leap beyond yet nearer bring
A series of questions follows in which each object named is searched for its more intimate associations.
This printed and bound book–but the printer and the printing-office boy?
The well-taken photographs–but your wife or friend close and solid in your arms?
The series ends with the questions, “And what is reason? and what is love? and what is life?” The point is always to go beyond the face of things to their human foundations, and in these to that threshold where they present themselves to us in their original mystery.
Participating with the worshippers of the past in practices ancient and modern, he stands also with the “down-hearted doubters, dull and excluded.” Just as his professions of divinity in chant 41 are followed in 42 by his identification with “little plentiful manikins,” “duplicates of myself,” so his religious rituals are juxtaposed with empathy for the torment of unbelief. Upon the doubters he urges his faith: though he does not know what is after this life (“untried and afterward”), he knows “it will prove sufficient and cannot fail.” The vision of regeneration he introduced early in the poem (6) and his confident knowledge of our immortality (7) help to give this claim credibility. But what is more helpful is the fact that we are convinced of his acquaintance with darkness, that his optimism is not the product of blindness. Here again he demonstrates this by showing us some of those whom he intends to include in his optimistic prophecy. (43)
“It is time to explain myself–let us stand up” is the playfully incongruous opening line of chant 44, where lamentation is abruptly banished, indeed disavowed (“What have I to do with lamentation?”), as though belonging to an alien Gestalt. The poet resumes his grand voice and delights us by expanding upon the cosmic conception of himself introduced in chant 33. Here is what he said then:
My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents, I am afoot with my
Now he focuses on how he spans time:
My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs,
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps,
All below duly travel’d, and still I mount and mount. (44)
And he traces in detail his cosmic development out of the “first huge Nothing.” But before this adventure in cosmic time, he does state directly, as though indeed explaining himself, one of the fundamental projects of the poem:
What is known I strip away,
I launch all men and women forward with me into the Unknown. (44)
He is the teacher who turns the veil of familiarity from everything we see.
The product of the aeons of cosmic preparation is announced in the last lines of chant 44 and in the first lines of chant 45, and following this, as he looks toward his death, are projections of his cosmic future.
He is very much on this earth in the wonderful chant 46, within whispering distance of us, as he leads us upon a knoll and points the way to the road we must travel for ourselves. Although he anticipates enfolding the orbs of crowded heaven, and passing beyond even these, it is not the cosmic traveler who speaks to us here, but rather the dream-bound man, who climbed a hill this day to observe the pre-dawn sky. It is the voice of our teacher, humble and human, who knows we must part from him now, since he has given his best, and watches to have the memory of us dashing laughingly with our sea-wet hair. Here is one of the abiding images of this poet, its pathos augmented by its contrast with the cosmic hero of the two previous chants: loving teacher with unspoken grief at our parting, watching and bidding us courage from his solitary place on the shore.
Especially interesting in this last quarter of the poem is the contrast between the personae who conduct its two final projects. There is a shifting between the cosmic herald of the new religion and the very human poet who prepares us for his farewell, though each of these is changed by our awareness in him of the other.
The final chants prepare us for what will be his astonishingly quiet departure. He encourages us to stray from him: “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” (47) But he knows how difficult it will be for us to stray from him, and imagines how he is and will be present in the minds of those who commune with him:
The farm-boy ploughing the field feels good at the sound of my voice…
The young mother and the old mother comprehend me,
The girl and the wife rest the needle a moment and forget where they are (47)
He summarizes some of his teachings, emphasizing key tenets of the new religion: that God not be exalted above one’s own self, that God is to be found in every encounter, in the faces of the men and women we see, and in our own face, (48) and that death assists at each birth (49) and must not be feared.
In chant 50 the poet strains at the limits of what he can say, and we hear the voice of his anguished self for the last time. He is trying to express the ultimate source of his vision, that whose embrace of creation awakens him from the long, needed sleep he fell into in this struggle. But “I do not know it–it is without a name–it is a word unsaid.” “Outlines! I plead for my brothers and sisters,” he cries, as though in harsh judgment of all he has said. The best he can say of this is clearly inadequate, stammered now in spasms:
It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness.
These doubts are set aside, without resolution, for here are the limits of words.
The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Inviting us for a final walk (“I stay only a minute longer” (51) ), putting us in mind of his walks with the gentle God, he notes the accusation of the spotted hawk, and in imitative good-humored defiance sounds his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” (52) And now the softness of his departure, his effusing of himself to the elements, and his final instruction, the last line underscoring the inseparability of ourselves from who he is.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
We are now in a position to understand how Whitman has dealt with the challenges to his enunciation of an identity. Despite its recurrent expressions of anguish, Song of Myself is a deeply optimistic poem. Where in all American literature can we find the rival of these verses in sheer celebratory power? Perhaps the most remarkable expression of its optimistic temper is the fact that the challenges to the project of establishing an identity become themselves keys to its accomplishment. The very formidable obstacles to Whitman’s creation of an identity are transformed into the identity itself.
Whitman resists mastery of any aspect of the world, its reduction to the familiar, but such mastery seems a necessary condition of any sort of stable identity. His characteristic manner of concourse with the world is by means of absorption, sympathetic identification; he refuses to separate himself internally from the world he experiences, and this again would seem to spell disaster for the marking out of a distinct self. And he is tormented by so extreme a diremption between interior and public selves as to seem to put altogether out of reach any unitary identity. And what emerges in Song of Myself is a vibrant, generous, all-embracing poet, the product of a complex birth, whose comprehensiveness is the mark of his identity; a teacher whose fundamental project is to conduct us to our unmastered worlds. The unmastered becomes his realm of mastery; sympathy, his password; and division, the permanent interior drama of the self.
Whitman’s characteristic movement is an awakening to the world, seeing in persons and natural objects the quality of the miraculous. He feels within his own body a sympathetic vibration with the vitality of all that has grown, but this does not diminish their mystery for him, for his own center of vitality, his soul, which he always imagines as embodied, as his connection to nature, and therefore experienced physically, remains mysterious and therefore miraculous (unmasterable and potentially dangerous) to him. (“I and this mystery, here we stand.”) He experiences the mystery of things in sympathetic resonance with his own mystery. The time he favors is the flowing present, the now transcending itself toward the future, the time of awakening and renewal, the time that puts us on the verge of the new. Hence his long flowing line and his frequent use of the present participle.
Speeding with tail’d meteors, throwing fire-balls like the rest,
Carrying the crescent child that carries its own full mother in its belly,
Storming, enjoying, planning, loving, cautioning,
Backing and filling, appearing and disappearing,
I tread day and night such roads. (33)
His interest in the vital, regenerative, mysterious aspect of things, things poised upon rebirth, explains the naturalness of sexual metaphors in his language and the centrality of sex as a theme. This interest in the unknown and unknowable, the wholly present and unanticipatable, this commitment to encountering the world anew by seeing in it what is only now unfolding, becomes instead of a decisive obstacle to identity, a key feature of the identity he proclaims. And inducting us into this way of seeing becomes his chief project as a teacher.
His difficulty in separating himself from the persons and things of the world likewise ceases to be an obstacle to identity when he makes that very difficulty a hallmark of who he is. The poet who sees the interconnection of all things defines himself as the cynosure of that interconnection. But does he not extend this same identity to all of us? Are we not all comparable points of interconnection? Then how can this define him, distinguish him from anyone else? His answer is that he is the one who sees this truth with dazzling clarity, the one whose tongue seems fashioned for its expression, thus the one uniquely equipped to bear these tidings well.
(It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the tongue of you,
Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d.) (47)
The conflict within the self and the potent threat of self-negation are dealt with by announcing the conflict, presenting the division within the self as part of the self’s identity. The challenge here is to conceive an internal relation among the divergent aspects of the self that allows for a unitary synthesis. The witnessing and waiting ‘Me myself’ both in and out of the game is introduced as distinct from the prolific, multitudinous Walt, the Walt who so comfortably strides the world and is never out of the game. And the soul is still another dimension of the self, neither outsetting Walt nor introverted ‘Me myself’, but vital untamed primal sexual power, not a possession of the self, nor subject to the self’s containment, but “nature without check with original energy.” But it is union between the ‘Me myself’ and the soul that produces that creature, Walt, full of love and imaginative potency. The poet avows the division, but includes it in the celebration, while mindful of its danger (the threat of disintegration), as the multi-channeled wellspring of his fertility. The self he presents is a dynamic concourse among three parts: soul, self, and their bardic offspring. As ingenious as this solution is, it testifies to the severity of the problem. The parts remain distinct. While Whitman can embrace them within the scope of his celebration, he cannot merge them in a synthesis, create a unitary self. The reason this division is compatible with our sense of his great good health, physical and psychical, is that he avows it, is deeply attuned to it, sees and appreciates the gift it brings, and because we recognize something of this division in ourselves. And there must be this recognition, after all, for the implicit and explicit promise of the poem to be credible: that the grand and generous self it creates, so much vaster than our own, may somehow nevertheless be our destiny.
Jeffrey Gordon is professor of philosophy and NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at Texas State University. His essays on questions related to the meaning of life have appeared in journals throughout the world.
*All references, indicated by numbers in parentheses, are to chants in Song of Myself, in Leaves of Grass, Comprehensive Reader’s Edition, edited by Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley (New York: New York University Press, 1965).